A shorts history: Findings on first films


An image from “A Trip to the Moon,” a classic film by Georges Mêlées. Public domain.

By Helen Stephenson

Short films. Fantastic bits of celluloid (or, more common today, bits and bytes). This art form continues to grow and gain popularity. Why do filmmakers make short films? For many filmmakers, a short film is a calling card to prove their storytelling skills. Can they direct? Light? Tell a story? The proof is in the film.

How can audiences support these filmmakers? There are several ways. First, if you see a short film you like, and it becomes available on iTunes or some other platform, spend a couple of dollars and purchase it. Nothing shows support for the arts like cash! Short filmmakers also want live input from audiences, and what better way to do that than at a film fest?

This month, the Prescott Film Festival will once again be supporting and showcasing the art of independent short films when they present the annual Manhattan Short Film Festival, 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25 at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center.

These short films follow a long tradition in filmmaking. The very first films ever were short films. Who made the first film? Film scholars credit Frenchman Louis Le Prince with that honor. (Though Thomas Edison tried his best to take the credit.) The first film, “Roundhay Garden Scene,” was shot in 1888. This was simply a scene of Le Prince’s family walking around the garden. The patent for Le Prince’s camera was granted in New York, in 1886. This was four full years before Edison and his assistant, Dickson, made their film.

The first public film screening was held in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895. It came from the Lumieres brothers — “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory” — and it is 46 seconds long. Their movie camera was based on the movement of a sewing machine because the grab advance mechanism advanced, paused, then exposed. If you opened the back of the camera, it became a projector.

Meanwhile, over in France, Georges Mêlées was making narrative shorts and documentaries in 1896. Many of his films don’t exist anymore, so scholars are unable to classify them. However, in 1902 Mêlées made a film that is still quite famous. If his name isn’t a familiar name to you, the images of his films almost certainly are; at least one particularly iconic image.

Mêlées was called “the creator of the art of cinema.” Despite the accolades his films received, he hit a rough patch in 1917 when the French army turned one of his studios into a hospital. During the war, the French army confiscated 400 prints of Mêlées films to melt them down for their celluloid and silver content. Amongst the things made from his films? Heels for army boots.

When a rival studio bought his studio, Mêlées was outraged and burned all the negatives of his films he’d stored at the Montreuil studios and his sets and costumes. As a result of this and the French Army burning his films, only around 200 of Mêlées films exist today. He made 538. A wonderful (fictionalized but based on fact) story about Mêlées is the 2011 film “Hugo.”

What should you expect when you partake of the long tradition of short film screenings at the Manhattan Short screening this month? Simply put, some of the best short films from across the world.

The producers of the shorts festival call it “an instantaneous celebration that occurs simultaneously across the globe, bringing great films to great venues and allowing the audiences to select their favorites.”

Join us in Prescott as we present the best of the best of short films at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25 at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center. For more information visit PrescottFilmFestival.Com or find us on Facebook. Tickets are $6-$12.


Helen Stephenson is the founder and executive director of the Prescott Film Festival and the director of the Sedona Film School at Yavapai College.

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